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Preston City Council’s political leaders debate Guild Hall, finances and more ahead of 2024 local elections

Posted on - 28th April, 2024 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Politics, Preston Council, Preston News
Preston Town Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston
Preston Town Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston

With local election day looming on 2nd May, the Local Democracy Reporting Service has put Preston City Council’s political leaders on the spot to debate the big issues facing the city.

To be invited to take part, a party had to be contesting at least a third of the seats up for grabs at the polls – meaning the ruling Labour group, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all made the cut.

Representatives of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and two independent candidates are also standing in some wards – and you can find local manifestos from them and all of the political groups here.

Read more: Potholes the ‘number one priority’ for Lancashire residents

However, for the debate, local democracy reporter Paul Faulkner was joined by Cllr Matthew Brown (the Labour leader of Preston City Council), Cllr Sue Whittam (Conservative opposition group leader) and Cllr John Potter (Liberal Democrat group leader).

Here’s a flavour of what they had to say on the topics that came up for discussion.

THE FUTURE OF THE GUILD HALL

After being mothballed for five years over a legal dispute, the venue has now been found to have RAAC ‘crumbling concrete’ in its main theatre area and so remains shut, but plans are afoot to open the smaller foyer area, which is unaffected.

Sue Whittam

“We do need to get that foyer opened, because it was used for the mayor’s ball…so there’s no reason why we can’t move forward and get that up and running really quickly to get some kind of venue back to Preston.  We definitely need [one].  I’m not asking for a big…arena, but just something that’s in the centre of Preston. It’s really important to people who live in Preston – and then they use all the facilities [in the city] itself – the restaurants and the bars – because they make a night of it.”

Matthew Brown

“We hope to [have the foyer space open] this year.   It’s not anyone’s fault that we found RAAC, [but] if we had a government that was supportive, [they would] make money available to councils to deal with it and deal with it quickly. But we don’t. So obviously we’re trying to find a way of dealing with that going forward – but the plan is geared up in the next few months.”

John Potter

“Buildings have certain lifespans, and the Guild Hall, at most, is going to have a few decades left.  What we need in Preston, more than anything else, is actually a conference venue. So we need to plan for what’s next – and to do that, you have to have an idea. If the money becomes available, or an opportunity presents itself, you can grab it and say, ‘This is what we want for our city’.”

COUNCIL HOUSING

The city council plans to purchase 20 properties for affordable housing as part of the redevelopment of the former Horrocks Mill site on the edge of the city centre.  But is that really the extent of the often-trumpeted vision for a return to council housing in Preston?

Matthew Brown

“We have to start somewhere and…the quickest way to do it is acquiring [properties like] these 20.  We’re looking to provide others by potentially purchasing properties on the market. Those in temporary accommodation, for example – it costs a fortune, the bed and breakfast bill, [so] it makes sense that we actually own properties ourselves to help people who might be suffering temporary homelessness.  We do want to scale it up and [a potential] Labour government have said quite clearly that there will be more opportunities for council housing as we go forward.”

John Potter

“Developers have such an upper hand on councils, in terms of their ability to…just pause their building until the time is right for them. We’ve passed so many thousands of houses in Preston and [the] developments that have yet to be built.   I’m not gonna be churlish about the plan to start council houses in Preston, because, actually, I agree with it – and I think that that’s the gap in the market that does need to be filled.”

Sue Whittam

“I do support Matthew [regarding] council houses.  My family lived in a council house and [people had] the opportunity to buy them. And that was great that you had the opportunity to then own that home. But the problem [was] new homes weren’t built to replace [those that were sold], so we ran out of houses. So we need to do something – and although it’s a small start…it’s a good start.”

PRESTON’S IMAGE AND ATTRACTION 

With the Animate cinema and leisure development and the refurbished Harris Museum both due to open early next year, is Preston city centre doing enough to attract visitors?

The city council has also recently agreed to create a new post to tackle antisocial behaviour – and with homelessness being on the rise in Preston, has the city got a good image at the moment? 

John Potter

“The city’s fantastic – I chose to come here and I’ve chosen to stay here.  [But] if you put it on a poster, [then] what is Preston? [The cabinet member for culture recently] listed off maybe 15 different things, but there’s no focus to it. And I think that’s the key thing – we need to give ourselves a unique selling point. Whether you want to do it because of the history or the brilliant parts or whatever…you’ve got to do it.

“You can’t walk through Preston city centre without seeing bits that you think just look in decline. Animate [and] the Youth Zone [have] had cross-party…support. But if you look at our city centre…people come and say, ‘What is the point in coming into the city centre right now?’ We need to change that – like most towns and cities, it’s not going to be a retail-based offer that’s going to save our city.”

Matthew Brown

“What we are doing in terms of capital investment is [worth] £120 million – supporting the Youth Zone, [the redevelopment of] Amounderness House, reopening the Guild Hall foyer, the Animate [development] and [refurbishment of] the Harris.  And it’s participatory, so we’re benefiting local companies, local people.   When these developments do open, [they will bring] a real regeneration of our city centre in terms of culture and creativity.”

“The Youth Zone will be a big part in trying to tackle antisocial behaviour…but I think if you look at the vision that we have, it’s very clear.   This is a Labour council that’s delivered a record number of affordable homes last year, the highest out of any [area in] Lancashire, so we’re trying to tackle that poverty, which often leads to communities suffering antisocial behaviour.  In terms of tackling homelessness, we’re throwing everything at it.  The council itself has opened a directly provided…homeless shelter [and] we obviously work with homeless charities.”

Sue Whittam

“We all want the best for Preston – and I think that’s what all three leaders here have got in common. I’m a Preston girl born and bred and I love Preston – but there are things that we need to sort out and unfortunately, it is depressing [in] some…areas and the shops [are] shutting down and buildings not coming back into use again.

“The new bits at Stoneygate and the Station Quarter and things that are planned going forward will bring it up and running in a good way.  But at the moment, we’re just a bit slow is what I would say. And we’ve got a fantastic university, lots and lots of students – but we don’t want to just be known as a university city. We want older people [in their] 40s [and] 50s wanting to come into the city centre.  And the way to do that is to get a venue where we can go and make a whole night of it.”

COUNCIL FINANCES

At this year’s budget meeting, the city council revealed that it might have to find £1.1m of savings next year, depending on the timing and terms of the borrowing for the Animate cinema and leisure development.  Its general reserves are also forecast to drop by £10m between 2023 and 2027 – to just above the minimum required level. So will the authority’s big projects limit its day-to-day spending?

John Potter

“Matthew [has] said, ‘Oh, we’ve got a balanced budget’ – a balanced budget in his terms means not yet going bust.  We are still losing nearly £2m a year – we’re just chewing up through savings.   But if you’re going to borrow money, which the council is going to do, you want to know what level of debt that’s going to put on [you].  We need to know our interest rates and our risk so we can assess that – and we were told by [council] officers [that] by December [this year], we will know exactly what that risk is far better than we do right now.”

Sue Whittam

“We took a watching brief…[in] advice from officers.  But the only reason [Labour has] not done any cuts is because basically, we [are] running with so many vacancies at Preston City Council that you didn’t need to.  Obviously, we’re now going to have to wait and see what happens with interest rates, we’re all hoping that they’ll drop. I know [Labour] are also looking at if there’s a Labour government, the magic money tree will come along, [but that] isn’t at all guaranteed.”

Matthew Brown

“We have managed to avoid [cuts] so far – and we’ve got to do everything we can to avoid that.  If we have to make savings, we will make savings but…we do not want to impose cuts on our communities across Preston. We’ll be working to ensure that when we do start the Animate [borrowing] – the biggest investment in the city centre for probably 50 years – that it’s on the most favourable terms.  If it comes to where we’re going to have to look at where we do make some savings [we will], but it’s something we’ll try to avoid for as long as we can.”

DEVOLUTION

Lancashire is on the verge of signing a devolution deal with the government after more than seven years of trying – the terms including a £20m innovation fund and control over the adult education budget.   But is it a good deal for Preston?  And is the future of the city best served by the current two-tier council set-up, where services are split between the city authority and the county council? 

Sue Whittam

“I think it was very difficult to get leaders around the table and come to some kind of consensus. I think it’s a start, it would have been great if it was more, but it’s a start. But the elected mayor wasn’t…on the table [from Lancashire]…which meant that the funding was less.  What this promises [is] to open up more dialogue with government, whichever government that may be.

“And we could spend ages talking about it would be better if [the councils were reorganised]  but I know [from] a few years ago, there was no way Chorley and South Ribble [wanted] to join with Preston.”

Matthew Brown

“It’s an atrocious deal, it delivers nothing for the people of Preston and Lancashire – and the lack of ambition within it is frustrating. Even things like promoting decent work – which was part of original discussions – like decent living wage jobs, mental health in the workplace….trade union recognition – we could be doing things like that, but we’re not.  

“My own view is we do need a unitary [standalone Central Lancashire] council.  If you look at some of the councils in Greater Manchester with footprints of say, 250 [or] 280,000, that seems a more sensible scale than what we have at the moment.”

John Potter

“Preston City Council does really important stuff, but the vast majority is [done by the] county – social care, roads, schools, public health, that’s all [run by the] county. That’s where the lion’s share of your council tax goes. The problem is Lancashire County Council is too fat, it’s huge, it’s not efficient enough to work. I’m in total agreement with Matthew about the size [of  a standalone council for Central Lancashire].”

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